So Pundy (or The RPGPundit, as he's commonly known) has a new video about player backstories, and I gotta say I agree with him wholeheartedly. Hat tip to Bradford C. Walker for posting it on his blog and then further posting that to twitter so I could see it while I was making my coffee today. Go subscribe to both of these gentlemen and pop their blogs into your rss feed.
Now I'm not going to belabor the points made by Bradford & Pundy, but I am going to add onto them here. There's something that's implicit in all this talk of player backstories and why they're bullshit that's being left unsaid, I think. And I dunno if those two just overlooked it or if they were purposefully leaving it unsaid, but as we all know I'm a little thick and sometimes I need to spell things out for myself. Maybe someone else will get the benefit of my anti-wisdom.
Anyway. The real reason your players don't need backstories are because they should be allowed to die. None of the other stuff really matters as long as the players and the DM understand that:
A: This is a game and
B: Player character death is apart of it
So far as I'm concerned after that understanding has been reached the players can do whatever the blue fuck they want with their characters, because they're their characters not mine. Give that guy a backstory if you want, I'll even make minor concessions in the game world over it. Like in my current game (Temple of Elemental Evil run through B/X rules) one of my players is a cleric, and he went and did a ton of research about the Temple of Saint Cuthbert, made up a whole other branch, and decided that his character was a part of it and their job was to kick evil square in the dick.
And I don't mind that. It's actually been kind of funny. But the main thing is that he has the understanding that, unless he plays smart (which he does), every single time they go into the Temple could be the last time his character does anything. This is an understanding that every DM should have with all of their players.
Players like to do dumb shit occasionally. Sometimes that dumb shit comes with serious fucking consequences. The DM shouldn't be afraid to let the players suffer those consequences.
Because Bradford's right when he says:
the revealed pattern of behavior is that backstories are used to shoehorn narrative trope bullshit into what is not a medium of narrative storytelling, but rather a medium of liminal wargaming.
That's what D&D is. It's a wargame on a very small scale, meant to represent and put the players into a fictional world that reacts to their decisions via the avatars of the characters they play. D&D has its roots in wargaming, quite literally, & it's a lot more fun when that is kept in mind by the players and the DM. I can promise you that.
I've brought this up before but my last Pathfinder game before I started DM'ing myself was narrative bs. I put very little effort into my character's backstory. He was evil, a cleric, probably an orphan, and a tiefling because I was being an edgelord. I wanted to be able to just fuck with people as hard as I could and there's few better ways to do that than by actually playing a fucking monster. However, there was no risk to that game, and I got bored quick and stopped taking it seriously after about six or eight sessions.
Every character had a backstory, we had entire sessions that were literally nothing but roleplay when I was looking to get into the dungeon, kick people in the balls, take they stuff, and get back out alive. The only "real" fight we had was all a dream so the DM could test how we would do (at level 8 or so) against the enemies he'd homebrewed, and we got fucking wiped.
I think my guy might've survived because I banished one of the engines of death back to its native plane. That was the most fun session that entire game, and once I realized that I just couldn't go back to narrative bullshit anymore. I got a taste of a real fight, I watched my friends' characters die, and I almost ate it myself, and after feeling that tiny, diluted hit of what D&D was supposed to be, I just couldn't do "girl D&D" anymore.
D&D is based in wargaming, and it shows in the language we use in the hobby itself. The reason a string of adventures is called a "campaign" is because it's based on the military campaigns that tabletop wargaming recreates. Much like the influence of Appendix N and the pulps, that's something they'll never scrub out of the hobby no matter how hard they try. Like H.P. Lovecraft's writing, its power is beyond their ability to deface.
But what happens in a military campaign?
People fucking die. It's a necessary consequence of the very act of campaigning. When you have supposedly slightly extraordinary people (you're not peasants, but you're not great heroes of legend either) going into an incredibly dangerous situation almost literally every single day of their lives, the likelihood that something will kill them is increased exponentially. This is why dungeons are full of monsters, traps, evil humans, portals to other dimensions, and all kinds of other shit. The point of the dungeon is to kill the players, and the point of the players is to navigate it without dying.
So what does Final Fantasy have to do with this?
Tabletop RPG's ARE NOT VIDEO GAMES.
In a video game like Final Fantasy, you have the One True Party™. These are a group of people whose stories the dev team has chosen to tell, like Cloud, Barrett, and Tifa in 7 or Zidane & Co. in 9. They have their ups and downs, and apart from a scripted loss here and there they literally beat the dogshit out of everybody they encounter. Oh, you can run into shit that's too heavy for you, but if your party gets wiped in the process it's game over and you have to go back to your last save point and click through all that dialogue again.
In D&D there is no One True Party™. The characters are expendable and can easily (or should be able to be easily) replaced. For example, another personal anecdote because I'm sure y'all aren't tired of those yet.
In the Temple of Elemental Evil our Dwarf who'd somehow survived like 16 sessions and had been there since the beginning (he was about lvl 5 or so) had acquired a lightning spear. This thing was basically a magical weapon of mass destruction. It did 1d6+20 damage in a 150 foot radius. Barring incredibly high HD creatures (like over 4 or 5 or so) it'll kill just about anything it hits, if it hits them. Well they come up on some Elementals in the Temple, as you do, and he throws the spear.
He misses. The elementals start stomping towards them, right over where the spear had landed. So I figure I'll have him roll to see if one of these giant mounds of dirt and boulders steps on it and breaks it, unleashing the magical energy within. Because I'm a dick like that.
He rolls his d6 and it comes up on 1. Well slap my ass and call me Sally, B/X is a roll-under system and low rolls means the thing happens. The elemental stepped on the spear, broke it, lightning went everywhere, and it fried that dwarf like bacon. Dead character, no more dwarf. The other characters proceeded to slit his throat and use his blood to banish the other elementals that were still coming towards them.
Hey, he didn't need the blood anymore. Far as I'm concerned that's efficient use of resources at hand. Player's fine, he rolled up a thief and he's back in the game next session. It sucks, but that's the way the dice rolled. Never trust a computerized random number generator.
This, incidentally, is why you hear me talk so much unrepentant shit about 5e's character creation system. It's horrible because it's too involved. There was no way the guy would've been able to have a character built by the end of the session like that (we were pretty close to heading back to town anyway) if we'd been playing 5e. Simple rule sets encourage this kind of frivolity with character's lives that's really at the heart of the way D&D is supposed to be played.
The party characters are just people, they're not special, they don't have any great destiny ahead of them, and their backstory doesn't matter. What matters is the emergent story that comes from them interacting with the virtual world they're placed in and how it reacts to them. These characters have to forge their destiny, not have it spelled out for them in a nice, safe garden path they can traipse down at leisure with no worries about big mean monsters coming to ruin their dainty little fingernails they just had manicured.
The characters are supposed to be people like Northwest Smith, Conan, Adam Reith, Cugel the Clever, and Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser. Slightly extraordinary men in extraordinary situations that built their own destinies from square one. There were multiple times in all their stories that they almost died, and would have were it not for their luck, fighting prowess, and brains. So it is with player characters in D&D.
If they live, it was because the player fought smart, played it safe, used every advantage they had, and had luck on their side represented by the dice. If they died, it was because they didn't. Plain and simple. This isn't Final Fantasy, it's tabletop rpg's. They're two completely different mediums, and one is about storytelling while the other is about kicking monsters in the dick and taking they stuff.
Failed novelists have no place at the table in D&D. Go write your book if you're so enthusiastic about it you'll try to railroad the players (or the rest of the players and DM) into going along with your supposed destiny. It's really easy to do. Pop open an OpenOffice text document and start typing. But when you come to the tabletop, you're supposed to be there to game, not tell a story.
Unless you're playing something like Hillfolk, I suppose, but we're talking about D&D and games like it. Which, once again, is fundamentally what these ttrpg's are. They're games. Even in the One True Party™ Land of Final Fantasy, failure is part of the game. You can run into that one thing that's too strong for you, or just fuck up planning for a fight, or screw up on your strategy for a certain boss and just get your ass completely wiped the fuck out.
The difference is in D&D character death is supposed to be permanent. So my advice, to build off what Bradford and Pundy are talking about, is firstly to DM's: Don't be afraid to kill off your players' characters when they do something stupid and the dice don't come up in their favor. And then to Players: Don't sweat a character dying, because it's really not that big of a deal anyway. If you had a destiny planned out for them, that wasn't really their destiny. Their destiny was actually to get squished by an Elemental.
If you inject some actual stakes back into your game, such as players getting pasted by big mean monsters, it'll be a much more fun experience for everyone involved. Even the guys whose characters die. If that wasn't the case then our thief player who died in session one wouldn't have rolled up another and come back next week. Our current female fighter would've quit after session 2 when her elf got her throat torn out by a wolf.
Dangerous liberty is far more fun than comfortable security, especially at the tabletop.
If you enjoyed this post, you can find many more like it on my website. You can also read my free original fiction at my Original Fiction page or in the anthology Darkest of Dreams from DimensionBucket Media on Amazon. You can also find my weekly podcast and audiobooks I've produced. You can also throw me a tip if you like at Ko-fi.